Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, March 02, 2007

Growing sectarian affiliation in Egypt puts Shiites at risk

At this decisive time in the Middle East, Hannah Allam of McClatchy Newspapers, discusses the growing tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and the increasing tendency for sectarian affiliation in Egypt.

In Egypt, Shiites, who constitute a small minority of the country’s 78 million Muslims, are at greatest risk of persecution. While, they were previously largely accepted and left alone, the persistent conflict in Iraq has fueled anti-Shiite sentiments.

According to Allam, the Egyptian media is printing anti-Shiite propaganda and some have sought to blame the group for regional problems. Egyptian Shiites also claim that the government is discriminating against them.
For full article, click here.

Egypt’s pro-democracy opposition

In an op-ed in today’s Washington Times, columnists Nir Boms and Benjamin Balint report on the current state of Egypt's pro-democracy opposition parties and activists including Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim of the Center for Development Studies in Cairo.

Boms and Balint address the shared principles of the pro-democracy opposition parties in Egypt – parties that often find themselves restrained by the agendas of President Hosni Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party and the Islamists who hold 20 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Boms and Balint writes that the pro-democracy opposition movement shares a platform of, “genuine democracy and an independent judiciary, free establishment of political parties, privatization and the abolition of Egypt's state of emergency. Reformers also seek to amend Article 77 of the constitution in order to impose a two-term limit on the president.”

Boms and Balint also argue that, overall, there exists “a critical attitude toward American democratization efforts in the Middle East.”

For the full article, click here

Services lacking in Cairo’s informal communities

The gloomy social reality faced by the majority of the 15 million Egyptians living in Cairo is disconcerting and is connected to the nation’s style of government, The New York Times reported Thursday. According to the article:

“The fisherman on the Nile, the shepherd in the road and residents of so-called informal communities say their experiences navigating city life have taught them the same lessons: the government is not there to better their lives; advancement is based on connections and bribes; the central authority is at best a benign force to be avoided.”

The problem, according to the article, is that while the Egyptian government is the country’s largest employer, it is also an unreliable source of help for ordinary citizens – especially those residing in underserved informal communities that constitute almost 75 percent of Cairo’s population. Thus, Egyptians have come to feel distanced and alienated from a government focused only on the progress of the elite, and have resigned themselves to the fact that is incapable of truly providing for them.
For the full article, click here

Briefing on the current situation in Iran

At a Congressional briefing Wednesday, Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, addressed Congress regarding the current situation in Iran and options for U.S. policy.

Having just returned from London, where he discussed the possibility of imposing additional sanctions on Iran, – a measure which was endorsed by India, Brazil and Egypt last week – Burns has confidence that even modestly bolstered sanctions will have a major impact by sending a clear message to the Iranian regime that new avenues must be pursued.
Burns made it clear that Iran is the central actor in the Middle East and there is a strong need to hold them accountable for their actions. Iran’s determination to dominate the region is disturbing and crafting an effective response to the threat that the nation poses is vital, he said.

However, Burns asserted that, “Conflict is neither desirable nor inevitable.” He went on to say that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weaponry is not imminent and there is still time to pursue diplomacy that would advance U.S. interests. In this vein, Burns argued that the key question is what we can offer in negotiations that would allow Iran to save face. He sees an option in providing economic benefits that would include, among other things, civil aviation and nuclear power programs.

Burns is concerned, however, that the Iranian regime feels excluded by much of the international community and are consequently seeking out allies in Latin America. He believes that we need to pay special attention to Iran’s relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “They are our neighbors, and money talks,” Burns said.
Burns asserted that American policy towards Iran will be defined by a strong commitment to diplomacy and a commitment to building a multilateral coalition opposed to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and pursuit of regional dominance.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Cambodian Buddhists protest arrival of Vietnam’s President

Coinciding with the visit of Viet Nam’s President to Cambodia, 40 Cambodian Buddhist monks staged a protest outside of the Embassy of Viet Nam in Phnom Penh, The New York Times reported today. The protests centered on religious persecution in Viet Nam. There are only a few religious organizations in Viet Nam that have been given the permit to operate.

The protest was entirely peaceful and dispersed on its own. Southern parts of Viet Nam have significant Cambodian populations that are vestiges of the Khmer empire, which stretched into modern-day Viet Nam.
For the full article, click here.

Vatican makes next step toward diplomatic relations with Viet Nam

In a move that comes just weeks after the Pope met with Viet Nam’s prime minister, a delegation from the Vatican is heading to Hanoi to improve the relationship between the two countries, The Washington Post reported today. There have been tensions between the Vatican and Viet Nam for decades, as the Vietnamese government has required that all church appointments must be agreed upon by the government. The Vatican has insisted that “concrete progress” has been made by Viet Nam with respect to religious freedom and the two countries are now working towards normalized relations.

For the full article, click here.

Iranian women on trial for peaceful protest

At least nine Iranian women will go on trial for “acting against national security by participating in an illegal gathering,” Human Rights Watch reported Tuesday. The women were present at a peaceful protest against discriminatory laws on June 12, 2006, when police violently broke up the event. Five of the women will go on trial on March 4. The other four have not had their court dates set yet.

The charges, according to Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch, violate both international and Iranian law. Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory, recognizes the right to peacefully assemble, stating, “no restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” In addition, Iran’s own constitution permits “public gatherings and marches [to] be freely held, provided arms are not carried and that they are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam.”

Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, will represent several of the women at trial.

For the full article, click here.

Impact of Westernization on Iraqi Kurdistan

A recent issue of Soma Digest highlighted a survey of a number of Westerners living in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to address the question of how accepting Iraqi Kurds are of Westernization in their country. One man from Holland observed a lack of Kurdish ideas to modernize their own country and a need to find a way to maintain culture, yet still modernize. Another man who has lived in the region for 8 years working with the U.N. and a NGO noticed the distinctive culture and social background of Kurdistan, and said, “A country does not have to be Westernized to be able to deal with Western cultures.”

Many of the foreigners living in Kurdistan have also traveled to other areas of Iraq and have noticed how much better Kurdistan fares compared to the other areas. Despite these noticeable steps toward modernity, many social and cultural aspects lag behind their political and economic counterparts, due, in part, to tribal and religious rules and traditions, some still quite conservative, that are still upheld.

One such aspect is women’s rights. "Kurdistan has experienced some modernization but it still needs more development particularly in the social aspects of society. This is particularly true in the area of women's rights. Women are mostly still treated as second-class citizens, and this is an ironic reality at a time when the people of the Kurdistan Region are insistent upon Arab Iraqis not treating Kurds as second class citizens. Yet, they too often treat their own women like second-class citizens," said Hary Schute, a former member of the U.S. army who now serves as an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Others surveyed remarked how open to change the Kurds are. This openness stems from two avenues. World exposure via media sources, such as television, exposes Kurds to Western ideas. Also, many Kurds fled in fear of Saddam to various Western countries. As one women observed, they are now beginning to return. “Their large families are coming back with them and the children, who have only had a western lifestyle before, are taking on the responsibility of learning how to live in a place that is somewhat foreign to them,” Lydia said. “Those children are requiring change and leading change.”

For the full article, click here.

EU Fundamental Rights Agency inaugurated

Effective today, the European Union (EU) has a new human rights agency, according to a press released issued today by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) replaces the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). “The creation of the Fundamental Rights Agency will further strengthen the EU’s role in effectively protecting human rights,” said the OSCE’s director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). “I believe it will shape a unique pool of expertise that can also influence the democratic development beyond the Union’s borders.”

FRA will work closely with ODIHR, EU member states, and the United Nations. The aim of the new agency is to support member states to “respect fundamental rights when they take measures or formulate courses of action.” Though “fundamental rights” are not explicitly defined on the agency’s website, the work of EUMC will remain the core business of the FRA.

The agency is expected to be fully operational by 2008.

For the OSCE’s press release, click here.

For the FRA’s website, click here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

U.S. to discuss Iraq with Iran and Syria at regional conference

The U.S. accepted an invitation yesterday to join Iran and Syria, among other Iraqi neighbors, at a regional conference in March and April organized solely by the Iraqi government, The Washington Post reported today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the development in remarks to the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday, by saying, “I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings. We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.”

The first meeting, to be held in March, will include ambassadors and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The meeting in April will include foreign ministers and representatives of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. In regards to the agenda, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said, “Security is clearly an important issue for the Iraqis. It’s going to be at the top of the agenda.” Roadside bombs “are at the top of our list. This isn’t, however, our meeting,” he added.

For the full article, click here.

Effectiveness of Iraq strategy and next steps debated

In a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee today, two witnesses debated with committee members about the effectiveness of the U.S. administration’s new Iraq strategy and the next steps that should be taken.

The Honorable Richard C. Holbrooke, Former United States Ambassador to the United Nations, opened his statement by comparing the current war in Iraq to the war in Viet Nam. Except in terms of the numbers of casualties, Holbrooke said, the situation in Iraq is far worse than Viet Nam. The critical difference between the two situations, he later stated, is that Americans do not want the extremists to succeed in Iraq, whereas protestors marched with Vietnamese flags to oppose the Viet Nam war.

Ambassador Holbrooke appeared somewhat uncertain about his stance on the U.S. administration’s newest proposal for Iraq to increase U.S. troops by 21,000. The increase, Holbrooke claimed, is “not enough to turn the tide, yet significantly deepens our presence in the war.” He later stated, “The nation has put all its eggs in [General] Petraeus’ basket; he must succeed.” However, the Ambassador believes that General Petraeus will not be able to succeed.

The question then, according to Ambassador Holbrooke, becomes one of how and when U.S. troops should redeploy out of Iraq, rather than whether they should. Redeployment, he claimed, will take at least a year with some troops staying behind to support U.S. national interest. Defining national interest was one point that the Ambassador repeatedly emphasized. When asked by Congressman Delahunt, of Massachusetts, to define national interests, Ambassador Holbrooke listed: Al Qaeda, stability in Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Syria, oil, Afghanistan, and America’s image in the world.

In the meantime, Ambassador Holbrooke noted that the recently announced Iraqi government conference, to which Iran and Syria have both been invited, is an important step forward. In addition to being a clear response to the recommendations and pressures of the U.S., he believes that Iraq’s neighbors must provide support in order to establish stability in the country.

Juxtaposed to Ambassador Holbrooke’s uncertainty, Dr. Frederick W. Kagan, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, strongly believes that with the troop surge, the U.S. military can succeed. When questioned by Congressman Ackerman, of New York, about why 20,000 additional troops would make a difference if they would be carrying out the same tasks as the 130,000 presently in Iraq, Dr. Kagan rebutted by saying that the new proposal is a fundamental change in strategy; one that is seeing positive trendlines. The 130,000, he continued, had a different mission than what the additional 20,000 are called to do. For that reason, he believes the new strategy will work, since significant progress has been noted, though not much time has lapsed since the start of the surge. We are “far from time to give up on this effort,” said Dr. Kagan, who also emphasized that setting a timeline is problematic.

Additionally, according to Dr. Kagan, the war in Iraq is important to the global war on terror. “Six thousand Al Qaeda terrorists are present in the Al Anbar province,” he said – also explaining that Al Qaeda’s presence extends throughout the belt surrounding Baghdad. Dr. Kagan further explained that Al Qaeda activities are closely tied with sectarian violence, which sometimes leads to sectarian cleansing and is used by Al Qaeda to mobilize the community to continue down such a path.

After two hours, Congress likely had more new questions to pose for additional hearings than answers to the questions at hand.

Iraqi migration restricted by Jordan

In response to the one million or so refugees already residing in the country, Jordan has announced that it will impose restrictions on Iraqi migration, BBC News reported today. The restriction requires all Iraqi asylum seekers who wish to enter Jordan to possess an Iraqi G-series passport. This type of passport is difficult to obtain, as it is only available in Baghdad and can often only be acquired with the payment of a large bribe. Travel to the United States and Britain requires a G or H-series passport. Other older series, which a number of citizens still carry, have been discontinued or are no longer accepted, as they are too easily forged.

Jordan’s move increases feelings of insecurity among the Iraqi refugees already living there. One Iraqi told a BBC correspondent, “I don’t think my parents will be able to join me here now because of this decision. My parents have old passports, which means there are restrictions on where they can travel.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations is trying to enlist international assistance to help manage the Iraqi refugee flows.

For the full article, click here.

The political stigma of the Islamic veil.

In a recent edition of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, Gihan Shahine discusses renewed international interest in veiled Muslim woman and the effects of the Western media playing up the link between growing Islamization and discriminatory regulations on women. According to Shahine, in the West there is a tendency to perceive the veil as a constraint to gender equality and female empowerment

Shahine reports that enforcing changes too rapidly, with respect to the long-standing cultural traditions of wearing the hijab, has only created unintended consequences that illustrate the fact that changes cannot be imposed overnight. In 2004, France introduced jurisdiction banning the hijab in government institutions. In the 1930’s, when the Shah of Iran mandated that women could no longer wear the veil, many women felt uncomfortable going out in public.

Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed comments that that the veil often is a personal choice. Muslim women are often not discussing, nor concerned with, the symbolic or political stigma associated with the hijab. Rather they are mainly concerned with how to negotiate the Quranic principle of modest dress in a way that makes them feel comfortable.

Shahine finds it unfortunate that many Western countries have reduced the issue of Muslim women’s education and liberation in to the question of the hijab.

For full article, click here.

Push for U.S. to demand that Egypt respect freedom of expression.

As a response to last week’s conviction of Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, The Washington Post, in an editorial today, poses the question of whether or not the Bush administration should continue to accept and subsidize a government that doesn’t support and respect freedom of expression. Egypt is one of the greatest beneficiaries of United States aid, receiving over $2 billion annually.

The editorial asserts that the Egyptian government tries relentlessly to repress and freeze any secular attempt to shed light on the democratic movement within the country. As another Egyptian blogger known as Sandmonkey wrote of Soliman’s conviction, “This could be used to prosecute any blogger the government feels like punishing and serves as a huge blow to freedom of speech in Egypt.”

For the full article, click here

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Egyptian blogger contests terms of punishment

The lawyers for Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil filed an appeal this Monday and a court hearing is set for March 12, The Associated Press reported today.

The appeal comes in response to Nabil’s conviction last Thursday. Nabil was formerly a student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo and has expressed his progressive political beliefs on his blog. He was sentenced to four years in prison for offensive comments towards Islam and President Hosni Mubarak.

Nabil’s case has gained international attention and has brought demands for Egypt to respect freedom of expression.

For the full article, click here

Recent lessons from Afghanistan – “what really works”

At a panel discussion held today at The Woodrow Wilson International Center entitled, “Linking Security and Development in State Building: Recent Lessons from Afghanistan,” three experts discussed the steps that should be taken to manage Afghan reconstruction.

Panelists included Candace Karp, special assistant to the president of Afghanistan’s senior economic advisor; J. Alexander Thier, the senior rule of law advisor at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP); and Mark S. Ward, the senior deputy assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Moderator Michael Lund, a consulting program manager at the Wilson Center, opened the discussion with a short introduction in which he encouraged the panelists to go beyond the usual Washington discourse. Lund expected them to pursue the topic with a critical examination of “what really works” in achieving peace and prosperity in Afghanistan. Lund went on to say that he considers Afghanistan to be, if not a failed state, then definitely a fragile state. He also sees the need for a holistic strategy, which utilizes purposeful inter-organizational collaboration, if the country is to truly prosper.

Candace Karp’s focus in the discussion was on reconstruction and development in a state building framework. Karp believes 2007 to be a crucial year for Afghanistan. As is known, we are currently witnessing insurgency in the south and southeastern parts of the country. According to Karp this is destabilizing and has undermined prior progress and contributed to growing skepticism in civil society. Trust is decreasing with regard to the Afghan government being responsive to public needs and social services and Karp sees no silver bullet solution.

To identify current development needs, Karp sees a need to prioritize capabilities so the financial resources available can be most effectively utilized. This is necessary to promote faith in the government and safeguard against further support for the Taliban insurgency.

Finally, Karp sees as a major concern, in the nongovernmental organizations’ lack of willingness or outright refusal to cooperate with the U.S. military in joint interventions. She asserts that coordination and cooperation is a fundamental component of failed state rebuilding efforts.

Mark S. Ward just returned from Kabul this week. Like Karp he stressed the importance of collaboration and of NGOs working side by side with the US military. However, Ward began his remarks by looking back at the gloomy situation in Afghanistan in 2001 and the subsequent progress that has been made since. According to Ward, USAID’s strongest assets are their people on the ground in field programs who can accurately assess how reconstruction funds should be allocated. In this vein, Ward noted the importance of good infrastructure, notably transportation infrastructure, in reconstruction efforts. He was also proud to say that USAID has worked closely with donors and the central, provincial and local governments in Afghanistan in setting priorities to help reach the lofty political goals that have been established for the nation.

J Alexander Thier ended today’s discussion by conveying a more pessimistic attitude with regards to the U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. He began by asking the audience, “Where did we go wrong in Afghanistan?” believing that we have generally failed to provide security for Afghan civilians. Thier also referred to a dramatic change in rhetoric by the Bush administration, quoting a statement from the 2000 presidential debate in North Carolina where President Bush said, “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” According to Thier, these remarks were indicative of the fact that, from the beginning, the U.S. was not fully committed to addressing the critical challenge that the situation in Afghanistan presented. Indeed, Thier argued that Afghanistan has suffered severely because of America’s shift in focus from the situation in Afghanistan to the war in Iraq.

As an end note, the panel agreed that there is a need to realize that it is not all doom and gloom in Afghanistan. The problem, they said, is that reconstruction success stories are seldom communicated in the media.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Documentary chronicles achievements of female Afghan politician

In Enemies of Happiness, Danish filmmaker Eva Mulvad chronicles the final days of Malalai Joya’s life-threatening campaign to win a seat in the National Assembly in Afghanistan. Prior to her campaign, Malalai Joya was the director of a women’s rights NGO in the western provinces of Herat and Farah. In the documentary you witness this young female freedom fighter become elected delegate. However, the documentary doesn’t simply tell Joya’s story; it also provides insight into the unique circumstances of Afghans in the days leading up to their first democratic parliamentary election in over 30 years.

Joya is considered a young, controversial and uncompromising politician, and is reviled by many Afghani fundamentalists. Prior to her election, she received numerous death threats and her home was bombed. However, she chooses to continue her struggle to stop the warlords active in government from enacting any new laws that will jeopardize the rights of her fellow Afghans, particularly Afghan women.

In an interview with the BBC, Joya said, “They will kill me but they will not kill my voice, because it will be the voice of all Afghan women. You can cut the flower, but you cannot stop the coming of spring.” The BBC called Joya “the most famous woman in Afghanistan,” and she is widely-considered a heroine in her homeland.

Joya has received numerous honors of late, including the Gwangju Award for Human Rights and the Women's Peacepower Foundation Women of Peace award. She was also among the "1000 Women for the Nobel Peace Prize 2005"

Enemies of Happiness conveys a story of personal courage in the face of oppressive circumstances. The film won the Silver Wolf award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam and was honored at the Sundance Film Festival.

For more information, click here.

Vietnamese Priest arrested for disseminating propaganda

Nguyen Van Ly was arrested by Vietnamese police and moved from his house to a smaller parish over the weekend, according to The Washington Post. Ly is a member of the Viet Nam Progression Party and is accused of working with democracy groups overseas to create a new party, a campaign that ostensibly undermines the single party rule of Vietnam’s communist party. At this time, Ly has not been formally charged by the government, but the investigation is ongoing. His forcible transfer comes less than a week after authorities took computers and documents from his house.

Ly angered the government when he submitted written testimony to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in 2001. In his testimony he urged the United States not to approve bilateral relations with Viet Nam until the country’s human rights record improved. In total, Ly has spent over a decade of his life imprisoned for his political activism.
To read the article, click here.

Exiled Buddhist monk makes second return trip to Viet Nam

After his comments on promoting peace drew the ire of the governments of both South and North Viet Nam 40 years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh has returned to Viet Nam for only the second time, The Washington Post reports. Hanh is planning three “Grand Requiem Masses” during his visit, which is scheduled to last until May 9.

The Vietnamese government currently only officially recognizes six faiths.

Hanh lives in France but has traveled extensively, notably to the United States, where several of his books have become bestsellers. Years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Hanh is looking to promote reconciliation during the visit.

To read the article, click here.

Contention over licensing poppy fields to produce opium-based medicines.

In 1974, Turkey, with its vast poppy fields, made the shift from supplier of criminal narcotics into a licensed system of legal farming of opium for medicinal purposes. It turned out to be a success story and today Turkey earns a great deal – from the U.S. in particular – exporting the raw materials that are turned into medical morphine and codeine.

According to Lynda Hurst, in her analysis for the Toronto Star, it is argued by several analysts that the kind of policies used in Turkey can also be used in Afghanistan. Converting an illicit crop to a legal crop, could be a favorable financial answer for Afghanistan, where more than 2 million citizens are economically dependent on the crop. Today, the Afghan poppy fields supply the opium for 92 percent of the global heroin trade.

However, according to Hurst, the U.S. remains resistant. Hurst writes that Washington “remains implacably opposed, saying complete eradication, no matter how long it takes, is the only acceptable outcome.” Later she notes further oppositional sentiments. The U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics believes that, Hurst writes, “licensing sounds good on the surface but doesn’t withstand scrutiny.”

For the full article, click here.

Karzai under pressure to make a decision on contentious amnesty bill

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure from many sides to make a decision on a controversial amnesty bill, which was recently approved by both houses of Afghanistan’s parliament, IRIN reported today. The 12-point bill, if signed by the president and made law, will effectively shield those accused of committing serious human rights violations during the past 25 years. The bill itself has attracted international attention largely because it has been portrayed as a self-serving political scheme, with many of today’s political leaders being former Mujahideen.

More than 25,000 Afghans rallied in Kabul Friday, calling on Karzai to approve the bill. Supporters of the bill believe it will work as a trust-building mechanism that would encourage unity, and therefore work to build peace and stability for the country.

Still Ahmad Nadir Nadiri, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, believes that signing the bill will help to call attention to the plight of the millions of Afghan citizens adversely affected by years of conflict. “It is upon the government of Afghanistan to ensure both security and implement justice,” he said.

For the full article, click here.